Aaron Cooke and The Athlete Recovery Fund

From left tor right, FMXer Travis Pastrana and ARF founder Aaron Cooke. ARF

2007 was not a good year for BMX injuries. "We had some big injuries, and it struck me that there was nothing in place to provide for athletes who suffer these injuries," says Aaron Cooke, older brother of professional BMXer Allan Cooke. So in the wake of the '07 comp season, Aaron Cooke went to work on a non-profit organization which would provide aid to injured action sports athletes. He met with lawyers, trudged through mountains of paperwork and created the Athlete Recovery Fund. Just over two years later, Aaron and the Athlete Recovery Fund have made quite a bit of progress, evolving from an ad hoc Paypal account into a non-profit 501[c]3 Corporation. But, as Aaron explains below, the road ahead is still long and murky. Following last week's viral video campaign to raise money for ARF, I figured it would be a good time to catch up with Aaron and get the latest on ARF. So I'll keep it quiet now and hand it over to Aaron. But I will say this: Everyone in the world of action sports owes Aaron a huge debt of gratitude for stepping up and creating the Athlete Recovery Fund. The work he does is bold, brave and more than likely full of confusing insurance jargon. Respect is due.

Can you explain what the Athlete Recovery Fund is?

In its most basic form, the Athlete Recovery Fund, or ARF for short, is set up to help athletes that get injured, from BMX, skateboarding and freestyle motocross. We try to provide financial grants for healthcare that insurance doesn't cover, such as rehabilitation equipment and home healthcare. Ultimately, we don't want athletes suffering or sacrificing treatment for what they can or can't afford. As a non-profit, there has to be a financial need for a charity to help an individual, and if an athlete is able to show financial need, we're able to step in and help with premiums, costs and anything that might surround an injury.

Why was ARF created?

It started because of Stephen Murray's incident. I helped him do all the fundraising for his cause. And being so close to Stephen and his family during that injury, I learned a lot about what insurance doesn't cover. Stephen had a great insurance policy, but unfortunately, when he got sent home, it didn't really do a whole lot. It fell very, very short of what his needs were. And it kinda freaked me out. What if someone that wasn't as popular as Stephen was injured, and couldn't raise that type of money on their own? What would happen? I approached Chris Stiepock at ESPN and I approached Wade Martin at Alli, The Alliance of Action Sports, and I asked them what would it take for us to get something like ARF going. Basically, I came up with all the answers to their questions, did what they said I needed to do, and they were the first people to help out and get it established. Now, we're getting more partners involved and more money is coming in.

Why are action sports athletes so difficult to insure?

Mainly because there's no insurance history on these athletes. These are still fairly new sports. For the most part, skaters, BMX and FMXers are at such a young age, that they're covered under their parents' policies more times than not. But when they reach a certain age and go get their own insurance, they find that the professional world of action sports athletes over 25 years of age is very small. So insurance companies, in the past, haven't really tried to create any history behind these sports. What ARF is doing is that we're working hand in hand with insurance agents that are only focused on action sports. They're working with insurance underwriters that are helping create a history, and a track record, and giving us the things that we need so that we can get more people insured. With the insurance brokers that we work with, we've been really successful. And we're getting people insured that were previously told that they were uninsurable. It's a big focus of ARF, to try to get people insurance too.

Who has ARF helped so far?

Starting with Stephen Murray. Greg Hartman is a FMX rider that received some help from us when he suffered a brain injury. Josh Heino received some help from us. His bills were going to collections, and we were able to negotiate those down. Mike Aitken; we paid for his air ambulance and we also paid for his family to stay out in Pennsylvania for the three weeks they were there. We've also helped out with Jeremy Lusk's funeral services, and his fundraising efforts, and we continue to work with his family. And we've helped Scott Wirch, plus FMX rider Cam Sinclair; we paid for his air ambulance from Spain back to Australia. But also, just by luck, we were able to donate a skatepark to the city of Rochester, New Hampshire. Mountain Dew had a park they could donate, and we lined it up so they ended up getting a brand new park.

Is this your full-time job?

It's a full-time job, but it's not my main source of income. The first year, I donated all my time. And this year, I'm trying to justify a salary, but it's tough going getting donations in this type of economy.

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The number of injuries that occur in action sports are far less than more common sports like baseball, soccer and football.

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--Aaron Cooke/ARF

Can you tell us a little about the most recent Ball Park/Transworld video drive?

Ball Park and Transworld came to me, and they heard about what we did, and they wanted to get involved. So they came to me with this different idea of how to make a donation. Every donation that goes to ARF is usually surrounded by some kind of cause marketing. It's not just, a company writes a check and we say thank you. We actually do a lot to create an event around the donation. Their idea was to do this viral video. At the time, I was working on a PSA as well, so it worked out perfect. ARF helped recruit athletes that were willing to do testimonials for ARF. Transworld produced the video and created the micro site. And Ball Park pledged a donation of $1 for every view of the video that was created. So it's a really unique opportunity, and a creative way to raise money for ARF... It's amazing how viral it actually go. I didn't expect it, but it's been showing up everywhere, like PerezHilton.com, on tons of athlete's sites, MySpace, Facebook. Ball Park and Transworld came up with a really great idea. You can check out the video here.

Have there been any roadblocks along the way?

Well, when we started, I went straight to an attorney firm that only sets up non-profits. I also talked with several other non-profit organizations and tried to learn from them. I can't really say there's been anything huge in the way. My biggest obstacle has been getting more money in the account, and getting more companies to participate. I've just been really patient about accomplishing the goals we've set forth.

Do you have to negotiate regularly with insurance companies?

We use brokers. I read a blog that Taj Mihelich wrote, and he said that he had aabout $40,000 in debt, but he HAD insurance. And I didn't really understand how he could have insurance and that much debt for the type of treatment he got. So I put him in contact with our broker, and she called the insurance company, audited his whole file, appealed it and got it down to a little over $6,000. That cost the Athlete Recovery Fund zero dollars, and we saved him that much money. It's good to have contacts in the insurance world that know the language and know what we're trying to accomplish. A lot of times, insurance companies will just try to get away with whatever they can.

Are there any nightmare insurance company tales to tell?

No, for the most part, it's trying to get insurance companies to understand our sports. It's important that insurance companies see the exposure to injury within our sports. I've spent countless hours providing insurance companies with injury reports from X Games past, and Dew Tours from years past. I'm trying to get them to actually see that the number of injuries that occur in action sports are far less than more common sports like baseball, soccer and football. The insurance companies just don't have any track record or history of action sports. We're creating that track record so that the next generation of action sports athletes doesn't have to fight for coverage.

And finally, what's next for ARF?

Ultimately, we're trying to get to that next level of funding. Ideally, we'd like to be able to subsidize premiums for athletes that are in the lowest income bracket. For instance, we may do a test study with athletes that make less than $20,000 per year and don't have insurance. We want to go out there and try to find an insurance policy that ARF could then pay for, just to make sure that athletes in the lower income bracket have the minimal health coverage.

So that's most pro BMXers then?

Well, there's a lot of street skaters that are in the same bracket. We have to go back to that financial need bracket, verifying their income, and helping to provide the coverage athletes need.

To contact Aaron Cooke, e-mail aaron@athleterecoveryfund.com, or check out the Athlete Recovery Fund Web site.